When an intruder invades your body—like a cold virus or bacteria on a thorn that pricks your skin—your immune system protects you. It tries to identify, kill and eliminate the invaders that might hurt you. But sometimes problems with your immune system cause it to mistake your body’s own healthy cells as invaders and then repeatedly attacks them. This is called an autoimmune disease.1
It’s been decades since I heard a joke about another denomination from the pulpit. That’s good. These days it seems we are getting along much better together as the body of Christ. That’s also good. But there are differences between us, and that creates the potential for conflict. The purpose of this post is to present a couple of models to forestall potential conflict and help us co-exist peacefully in spite of our differences.
Protection from danger
If someone introduces a belief or position that is not compatible with Christian faith, the body of Christ needs to address it, We have an immune system to protect us, which is our theology and doctrine, This protection is absolutely necessary because we must be able to tell what is, and is not, Christian belief.
For example, a belief that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity is orthodox (meaning right belief), while a belief that denies Jesus’ position in the Trinity is heterodox (meaning other belief). The core beliefs of Christian faith have been well documented in the church’s ancient creeds, so they are pretty clear.
The problem arises when there are sincerely held differences between Christians about non-core beliefs, where both sides can appeal to the Bible for support. That’s an important caveat, by the way. I’m talking about when both sides have biblical support. What then?
Teaching why your own interpretation of scripture is correct (and why another isn’t) is fine. Debating a point is also fine. A good example of such a debate is a book titled Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. But viciously attacking people who hold different interpretations is something else. If we allow our immune system to go on the attack against a fellow believer on a matter which truly is debatable, then we are suffering from autoimmune disease and attacking our own body.
For example, I believe the charismatic gifts are still operative today and perhaps you don’t. Does that mean we can’t be friends? Is this something we have to duke it out over until we have a clear winner? Do we really need to go on the attack? It’s been a hundred years since G. Campbell Morgan described pentecostal experiences as the “last vomit from hell,” but we still have websites today saying things like “Pentecostalism is of the Devil.”
Theology and doctrine are both very important. That’s why I chose to specialize my MDiv in Biblical Studies. There are beliefs that are crucial for agreement and then there are those that we can graciously accept as a reasonable Scripture-based belief, even if we don’t agree with it. I may think the other person is wrong, but that doesn’t make them non-believers or an enemy. If these beliefs were important enough to determine whether one is or is not a Christian, I’m sure the Bible would have been crystal clear about them. The fact that the Bible can support conflicting beliefs on secondary matters tells me that these are indeed secondary, or as they are usually called, disputable matters. You may be pre-, post-, or a-millenial, but is that something that should cause division between us? Dispensational or covenantal? It goes on and on.
Arguing over secondary matters (or personal preferences) can lead to division, factionalism and other unseemly behaviour within the body of Christ and it distracts us from our mission.
Fortunately, there is a great spirit of unity and collegiality between churches these days. We’re finally learning to demonstrate Christian unity. But there are some groups and individual Christians who still go on the attack. If Christians have sincerely held differences about eschatology, church polity, charismatic gifts, predestination or free will, we should be able to note the differences and disagree while still being in fellowship.
A great article appeared in ChristianWeek while I was writing this post that has some good suggestions for stopping the in-fighting. I want to give three additional tips that will help you live with the differences and not get worked up over them.
Differences are gifts
On July 2, 2001 I attended my very first class at Tyndale Seminary. Dr. Andrew Lau was teaching New Testament Theology & History and he said something that night that has stuck with me ever since. There were seven students in the class and we came from all different denominations. Dr. Lau made note of our various church backgrounds and told us he was born in China to Chinese Lutheran parents, and he has attended or served as pastor in Lutheran, Mennonite Brethren, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Brethren, and independent churches.
He said we would all get along fine with each other if we remembered three concentric circles:
- The centre circle is devoted to Jesus Christ and what we absolutely must believe about him to be a Christian. This includes essentials such as his divinity and the purpose of his death and resurrection.
- The next circle, surrounding the centre circle, is made up of denominational distinctives. Sincere “Bible-believing” Christians can see grounds in the Bible for different forms of church structure and governance, opposing doctrines such as predestination and free-will or the cessation or continuance of charismatic gifts, and different eschatologies. Each distinctive should be considered as a gift to the body of Christ. Each reminds the body of different aspects of our faith.
- The outermost circle is where our personal preferences lie. Do I like to sing hymns or choruses? Pews or chairs? Is my priority compassionate service or prayer ministry? My church home is a Pentecostal church and I thoroughly enjoy worshiping there. But I also deeply appreciate the Anglican liturgy, and I attend the Eucharist once in a while. These two widely different worship experiences appeal to different aspects of my spirituality.
Dr. Lau said that if we keep the content of the circles in this priority order with Christ at the centre, respect for the denominational distinctives next, and humility over our personal preferences last, we would have great discussions in class. The problem comes when I take a denominational distinctive and swap places with Jesus Christ, so that the distinctive is at the centre and becomes the test for orthodoxy. Or worse, switching Christ at the centre for one of my personal preferences. No one would knowingly do that, of course, but it can easily happen without thinking.
So when you encounter a different idea, assign it to one of the circles. Unless it goes counter to the inner-most circle and affects our core beliefs about Jesus Christ, you should be able to live with the differences. As someone who believes that Christ died for all people and that whosoever will can be saved, I can still get along with someone who believes in predestination. Either way, we are both following Christ, so we can work together. And I can enrich my own spirituality by appreciating the implications of predestination – that I’m personally known and loved by God who truly wants me in relationship with him. Those thoughts don’t depend on predestination, but they are a prominent feature of that belief.
Differences make us whole
John G. Stackhouse Jr. makes the point2 that perhaps one group can’t live out the full counsel of God on a particular issue. In his words, “in some cases no single stance says and does all that must be said and done, and therefore more than one posture might be necessary to cumulatively bear witness to the broad scope of God’s word and will in a complex matter…Christians of obvious good sense and good faith have disagreed about lots of things, and it’s not clear to me, at least, that one side or the other was always just wrong.”
For example, war is not the ideal, but it is necessary at times. God may call most of his people to wage war in order to maximize the resources available for the struggle against evil, but then call some of his people to be pacifists, to be a witness for radical peacemaking and a prophetic voice against the evils of war.
Rather than attacking the other position, why not see what can be learned from it?
Differences can be accommodated
Finally, churches by design are for the broad spectrum of believers. They must accommodate a wide range of people, each with their own priorities and beliefs about what the church should be doing and how to do it. It’s impossible to please everybody. Missiologist Ralph Winter wrote that God may provide specialized ministries outside the local church to allow for legitimate diversity of opinion as to methodology or priority.3 Instead of arguing over what position the church should take, its members can fan out and find specialized ministries that align with their perspective.
Here’s an example of how this works (taken from my book The Church At Work). Evangelicals can be found in virtually all political camps, so they may have very different proposals for solving society’s problems. “Trickle down” economic policies are one way to address poverty, while income redistribution through the tax system is another. Christians may legitimately disagree on these points. If opinion is divided, the local church or denomination may not be able to address the issue directly because their open membership covers all demographics and political opinions. However, its members could address the controversial issue through a number of independent ministries, each member choosing one with which he or she can agree.
Let’s agree on the essentials and agree to disagree on secondary matters. This is what living a faithful life of grace looks like.
The next series after this one is “What’s the church’s solution?“
Key Thought: Differences between non-core beliefs can be a gift
- http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/autoimmune/ ↩
- Making the Best of It, pp 39-41 ↩
- Ralph Winter 1971. “New missions and the mission of the Church.” International Review of Mission. 60 (January): 97. Winter discusses this point in a couple of other articles which are cited in my book The Church At Work. ↩